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The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK, 2023

Evidence type: Review i


Despite the increasing wealth of the country as a whole, there has been a rise in the experience of very deep poverty in the UK for over 20 years. This is the result of decades of failures in social and economic policy. Added to this, the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation rates at historically high levels in 2022 have impacted low-income households particularly hard. Poverty is not just a problem in its own right, it can also lead to a range of other, negative outcomes for individuals, families and society as a whole, and it is therefore important to understand the trends over time, the people affected and what the future is likely to hold.

The study

This review was undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charitable foundation which researches and works with government, businesses, charities, communities, and individuals to solve UK poverty. The report provides a comprehensive examination of UK poverty in 2022 based on the latest poverty-relevant evidence, with the aim of helping more people to want to understand and act to solve poverty, and updates previous editions of the report.

The review draws on a range of UK sources of data and literature, including the latest official poverty statistics (which are from April 2020 to March 2021) as well as other sources which bring the picture more up to date. It combines the collation of existing statistics with secondary analysis of largescale, robust, national survey data (including Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s bespoke survey of living standards) and is founded on careful consideration of the robustness of the data sources in its interpretation of the findings.

Key findings

  • Levels of poverty: 20% of the population were in relative poverty (below 60% median equivalised household income after housing costs) in 2020/21, equivalent to 13.4 million people. Of these, 7.9 million were adults of working age, 3.9 million were children and 1.7 million were pensioners.
    • This was slightly lower in 2020/221 than the previous year, which was the result of the effects of falling average incomes on the relative poverty line, government policy and the differential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on different societal groups.
    • 14% were living in deep poverty, that is, below 50% median income.
    • Living standards are likely to have fallen since 2020/21 due to the economic impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Brexit, historically high rates of inflation, higher rates of economic inactivity and the failure of pay to increase in line with inflation
    • Lone-parent families (with a single, working-age adult) were the most likely of all family types to be struggling with poverty.
    • The rate of poverty was also very high in families receiving Universal Credit (or its equivalents), for people in the social and private rented sectors and for households with a disabled person or informal carer.
    • There are geographical variations in the poverty rate and variations by ethnicity.
  • Future trends: The likely impacts of inflation (including in rent and mortgage payments) and falling levels of employment forecast may drive higher poverty level in the future depending on average incomes and the effect of potential recession on low- and middle-income households, as well as government policies which held the least resilient households.
  • Deepening poverty: Among the poorest one-fifth of families in 2022, 75% were going without essentials and 53% were in arrears with household bills or scheduled lending repayments. These represented substantial increases compared with 2021.
    • 34% of people inthe poorest one-fifth of families in 2018-20 had liquid savings of less than £250 compared with 2% of the richest one-fifth.
    • 18% of households experienced food insecurity in 2020/21, and data for 2021/22 show higher use of food banks than before the pandemic.
    • 52% had reduced the number of showers they take and 61% had been heating their homes less.
    • Rates of death by Covid-19 were higher in the most deprived areas than the least deprived areas in all four nations of the UK.
    • Living in poverty is associated with poor health generally, poorer mental health outcomes and young people’s educational attainment., and the pandemic has been associated with widening the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in the UK.

Points to consider

  • Methodological strengths/weaknesses: The authors have taken care to consider the margins of error relevant to each data source before considering it for inclusion in the report.
    • The authors note that there were higher margins of error wherever fieldwork was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic and that findings based on the Family Resources Survey in particular may not be directly comparable with previous years.
    • The report makes extensive reference to the numbers of people and households who are in poverty or otherwise affected by a measure in the UK population. It is important to note that these are point estimates which, like percentages, are subject to margins of error, but which may be subject to further error depending on the quality and timeliness of the underlying population statistics that are used to estimate the numbers.
  • Generalisability/transferability: The evidence which is presented is well considered and therefore expected to be robust. Therefore, the findings, though based on sample surveys, are likely to be representative of the population of the UK and the subpopulations referred to.
  • Relevance: As a comprehensive, considered and authoritative compendium of poverty statistics from 2022, the report is likely to be an important and relevant source of information for anyone with an interest in poverty in the UK, including researchers, policymakers, practitioners or members of the public.
Contact information

Carla Cebula, Aleks Collingwood, Rachelle Earwaker, Joseph Elliott, Peter Matejic, Isabel Taylor and Andrew Wenham, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Homestead, 40 Water End, York YO30 6WP, www.jrf.org.uk, [email protected], [email protected]